Call it ecoterrorism. Call it sabotage. Call it sending a message.
By whatever name, the $12 million in arson damage at the tony Vail, Colo., ski resort last week seems to underscore a growing militancy in environmental protest tactics.
While fringe groups have long made their point with a tree spike or a can of paint thrown on a fur coat, some of the latest incidents here and around the world represent a new level of boldness and belligerence. In recent months:
* Environmental radicals are suspected in a string of more than 160 bombings, shootings, and other acts of violence aimed at the petroleum industry in Canada's Alberta province.
* Animal-rights activists have released thousands of minks from fur farms in Britain and Sweden. They are now causing widespread damage to other species they prey on.
* Ecovandals in Wyoming were blamed for snipping 260 sections of barbed-wire fence in June as the Wyoming Stock Growers Association was meeting. Their apparent pique: cattle grazing on public lands.
"It seems as though the incidents are becoming more severe, and at a more frequent rate," says Craig Rosebraugh, spokesman for the Liberation Collective environmental group in Portland, Ore., which expresses solidarity with the shadowy group claiming responsibility for the fires at Vail, Colo.
A series of seven fires, which damaged four chair lifts and several buildings, has jolted America's busiest ski area just weeks before the Nov. 6 season is scheduled to kick off.
While most mainstream environmental groups have condemned the acts, experts say the arson may result from growing frustration among some environmentalists as they fail to make their case in established legal and political forums. At the same time, experts say some activists are becoming more emboldened because they know saboteurs usually elude capture.
"This could be the beginning, sadly, of this kind of [violent, left-wing] protest movement," says Richard Dekmejian, who studies terrorism and is a professor of political science at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. "This is quite nasty - and massive."
Certainly, environmental protests are nothing new.
When it comes to saving forests, activists have chained themselves to trees, sabotaged bulldozers, and "spiked" trees with metal and ceramic to destroy loggers' chainsaws. The New York Times noted an incident in southern New Mexico where cattle were gunned down with an AK-47 to protest grazing on public land.
The Earth Liberation Front, which has claimed credit for the Vail fires and whose numbers and membership remain anonymous, has claimed past acts ranging from spraying red paint on the Mexican consulate in Boston to burning a Burns, Ore., horse corral, causing a reported $450,000 in damage.
As far back as 1987, the Animal Liberation Front, a group sometimes linked to the Earth Liberation Front, caused a reported $3.5 million in damage after setting fire to an animal diagnostic laboratory at the University of California at Davis.
But no one incident seems to have equaled the wallop inflicted on Vail.
John Kundts, an FBI special agent in Denver, is not yet willing to classify the Vail fires as ecoterrorism, but says, "It's an extremely large loss, and it's significant when compared to other arson of this type." He adds: "It's the biggest loss of this type associated with the ski industry."
Local, state, and federal law-enforcement officials who have swarmed to the site say the fires erupted on Vail Mountain about 4 a.m. last Monday. No one was injured - although four hunters sleeping on the mountain had a close brush with the flames. The 500-seat, heavy-timber Two Elk Lodge restaurant burned to the ground, and flames on the 11,000-foot mountain damaged four ski lifts.
The damaged facilities are near a disputed, 885-acre Vail ski expansion that some argue will destroy a possible lynx habitat. The expansion, the subject of lawsuits and heated town meetings, was recently approved, and work began on it three days before the fires.
A communiqu sent to local news agencies from Earth Liberation Front said the fires were set "on behalf of the lynx." The communiqu continued: "Putting profits ahead of Colorado's wildlife will not be tolerated.... We will be back if this greedy corporation continues to trespass into wild and unroaded areas. For your safety and convenience, we strongly advise skiers to choose other destinations until Vail cancels its inexcusable plans for expansion."
Saturday, Vail Resorts spokesman Paul Witt said the company is moving forward with expansion plans. Ski season is expected to start as planned.
Incidents of "monkey-wrenching," or ecosabotage, seem to have been concentrated in the West and Pacific Northwest.
But why Vail? Why now? And what does it mean for the rest of the country?
SINCE Vail Resorts became a publicly traded company almost two years ago, some local citizens and officials believe the company has become more aggressive in its pursuit of profits, limiting competition, and building a new entertainment complex that takes patrons away from existing businesses.
"There is a lot of support within the community for the company, and vice-versa," counters Vail Resorts spokesman Witt. But he added, "Everybody's in a competitive environment here, and that's the nature of business."
Vail may also symbolize frustration with the courtroom and city hall. Mr. Rosebraugh, with the Liberation Collective, says environmentalists may feel they poured money down the drain in lawsuits that failed to prevent the Vail ski expansion. Some activists, says Rosebraugh, "are going to pick up where the law left off to support the environment."
Baltimore sociologist Howard Ehrlich says it is not uncommon for "politicized groups" to resort to violence after feeling they have exhausted all other remedies. And he adds, "The levels of political alienation in this country are probably higher than they've ever been. People just don't see government as being responsive."
USC Professor Dekmejian notes that a rise in violent tactics from environmental groups, which generally hail from the left of the political spectrum, seems to have mirrored a rise in violent tactics from right-leaning groups such as militias. Dekmejian says that such perpetrators might be antisocial to the point of having personality disorders, and feel alienated in a globalized society that has lost the comparatively simple communist/noncommunist distinction of the cold war.
It's possible to see how such individuals would strike at a glittering ski resort.
"The massive Vail complex, lit at night,... is a symbol of affluence and power," Dekmejian says.
For at least 10 years, the Eugene, Ore.-based Earth First Journal has published a feature called Earth Night News, which notes acts that some would term ecosabotage, says Lacey Phillabaum, one of four collective editors. Ms. Phillabaum says her publication does not condemn or endorse such acts. But she speculates that perpetrators may feel a new sense of urgency as development encroaches on pristine areas that are becoming more and more scarce.
"As long as species can go extinct without anyone speaking up, as long as Earth Firsters can be killed in the woods," says Phillabaum, referring to David Chain, killed by a falling tree in northern California while protesting the logging of ancient redwoods, "there are going to be individuals so enraged by that, they're going to take action in their own hands."
Yet Phillabaum was not prepared to say that the Vail incident was a harbinger of more high-profile tactics.
"I don't think I could speak to any trend," she says.
Her caution is mirrored by Milton Kleg, a professor of sociology at the University of Colorado, Denver, and a terrorism expert.
"One act in itself doesn't indicate, necessarily, an escalation," he says. And Kleg says the ultimate escalation has yet to occur. "To me, when they start killing people, that would be a real escalation."